August 26, 2015

of pie and pain

Our Syrian friend came over to help us eat pie. My husband phrased the invitation as a cry for help, "We have too much pie and need someone to eat it with us." Our friend came to our assistance and I teased him when he arrived, "If the pie is good, I made it. If it's not, my husband made it." But actually, my husband and I made it together. Those are his handsome hands rolling the dough below.

When our friend stepped into the kitchen, he saw the pie sitting on the table, with its woven lattice top and blackberry-apple goodness oozing from inside. He said,
"It has been a long time since 
I have seen a dessert like this."

When I piled vanilla ice cream on top of his slice, he said,
"It makes me happy even to look at this."

When he drank homemade iced green tea, he said,
"My mother always made drinks like this."

Maybe these phrases just sound like those of a mama's boy who is far from home. But when he asked for photos from the day we met on a lovely hike, he said,
"Sometimes when I feel like dying, 
I like to look at pictures from happy times."

"Sometimes when I feel like dying..."?
These are the real emotions of a man escaping war.

In the span of a few weeks, I've heard what feels like too many painful stories. Breast cancer, marriage problems, financial crises, a flood of refugees, a baby conceived out of wedlock...hurt after hurt. Not to mention the sorrow of our friend who came for pie. His family is still in Syria, in danger, and every day he knows pain like I have never known.

There is no quick fix or glue-on patch that we can offer to friends in pain. In fact, what we can do seems so basic. We pick berries and make pie and wipe the table again and light candles and send invitations and wash dishes. We pray and share truth as we are able. Then we go to bed and another day, we do it all again. Sometimes our efforts seem so simple and small, in the face of huge suffering.

After all, doesn't faith do big things?
"By faith Abraham went out, not knowing where he was going..."
"By faith Sarah bore a child when she was past the age..."
"By faith Moses refused to be call the son of Pharaoh's daughter..."
"By faith we...made pie?"
One of these things is not like the others.

But it takes faith to believe that God is powerful enough to take earthly elements like flour and shortening mixed with prayer and conversation, and somehow weave them into His eternal plan. It takes faith to believe that He was "acquainted with grief" so that we would not need to be grieved eternally. Isaiah's "Man of Sorrows" went through those sorrows so that He could transform wounded people into whole ones, hurt people into healed ones. "By His stripes we are healed." In this world bowed down with troubles, it takes faith to believe in and to point others to the only One who can bind up their wounds.

By faith we do the small things set before us,
asking Him to do the big thing:
to take this pie, and use it for the pain.

"I have told you these things, 
so that in me you may have peace.
In this world you will have trouble.
But take heart! I have overcome the world.
—The Man of Sorrows/The Prince of Peace

August 12, 2015


I've never been so happy to hear someone say that he's angry at God. It happened last Wednesday evening at our table.

Wednesday...the day that has quickly become our favourite day of the week.

Since February, almost every Wednesday night we've had a small group of people gather at our apartment. Other than our faithful friends who co-host with us, and a few new friends who've come quite regularly, the attendees change from week to week. We've had zero to six guests at at time, not counting our co-hosts.

The set-up for our Wednesday evenings is simple, we eat (soup in the winter, salad in the summer), we sing a couple of songs, and then we:
  1. Look back - we share something we are thankful for and something we want prayer for, 
  2. Look up - we read and discuss a short passage of the Word and ask three questions:
    1. What does this passage say about God?
    2. What does this passage say about mankind?
    3. How can I apply this passage to my life this week?
  3. Look forward - we practice retelling the story or something else that we might be able to pass along to others.
Perhaps what makes this group unique is that its supposed to be for people who aren't so familiar with our Book. Also, though the language spoken outside our doors in German, in our group we speak mostly English, which makes it good for people who want to practice their English, or who are most comfortable in English.

So that's what we do on Wednesdays or Mittwochs. (It's not so hard; in fact, you could do it too—that's why I'm sharing the details).

But back to the friend who is apparently angry at God. In the "1. Look back" portion of the evening, no one is ever forced to pray, but everyone is encouraged to give a request for others to pray for. Communicating personally with God and sharing concerns for prayer is something I take for granted, but it was obvious that sharing a prayer request was something one of our Asian friends had never done before. The first week or two, he didn't really share any concerns or requests, but he kept coming. Then, on Wednesday #3 or #4, he showed he was learning the ropes—he requested that we pray for someone he had known back home.

On the most recent Wednesday, and as we went around the table, our requests were pretty normal ones:
one person wanted direction for his job search;
another wanted safety and success in her studies in Italy;
another wants guidance for a meeting with refugee children;
and I asked that we pray for a sick friend who often comes on Wednesdays.

We came to our Asian friend last, and he said:
"I am very angry at God.
I haven't spoken to Him in a long time.
We...could...pray...for that."

As I said, I've never been so happy to hear someone say that he's angry at God. To clarify, I wasn't happy that he is angry at God. I was just happy and honoured that he opened his heart to us. One of the reasons I love Wednesdays is that our guests are willing to talk about spiritual things. Our conversations are interesting and get more meaningful the longer we know these friends.

But even so, I often wonder how realistic is it for us to expect someone of a completely different background,
(whether that be
or anything else)
to sit around our table, receive the Word, and "mix it with faith". Can the girl who is daily hearing higher criticism of our text ever accept it in childlike faith? What about the psychology student, who tells me that to believe in God is to go against everything her coworkers and professors believe about how the universe works? What about the Asian with his relativistic morality that allows for anything, really? Does that "mixing with faith" really happen, or would we be better off watching Netflix on Wednesday nights?

We read this book recently, and it reminded us that people do come to faith, and it reminded us how. The author, Qureshi, was raised in North America by loving, conservative Pakistani parents who  taught him to defend their faith. Yet Quereshi tells of his journey to becoming a child of God (which ultimately led to alienation from his earthly family).

The entire book is powerfully written, but the most memorable paragraphs for me were these, in the chapter entitled "Becoming Brothers". Here he explains how important relationship was to him in the transfer of truth:
"Unfortunately, I have found that many Christians think of evang. as foisting Christian beliefs on strangers in chance encounters. The problem with this approach is that the gospel requires a radical life change, and not many people are about to listen to strangers telling them to change the way they live. What do they know about others' lives?
On the other hand, if a true friend shares the exact same message with heartfelt sincerity, speaking to specific circumstances and struggles, then the message is loud and clear. 
Effective evang. requires relationships. There are very few exceptions. 
In my case, I knew of no Christian who truly cared about me, no one who had been a part of my life through thick and thin. I had plenty of Christian acquaintances, and I'm sure they would have been my friends if I had become a Christian, but that kind of friendship is conditional. There were none that I knew who cared about unconditionally. Since no Christian cared about me, I did not care about their message."
It wasn't that Qureshi didn't know any believers, it was that none of them had ever taken the time to be his friend. What I found so encouraging about Quereshi's story was that it really just through one faithful, unconditional friend sowing seeds and loving long that he came to faith. 

Though I speak of Wednesdays, our Wednesdays often spill over into weekends or other weekdays now, when we try to invite a Wednesday friend for sandwiches or popcorn, or receive or offer help with paperwork or moving. Most of the people who've come to our Wednesday gathering have met us or our co-hosts in other settings. Sometimes they've met our co-hosts through their business or are invited by a friend who is already attending. Some have already eaten at our table a few times before they visit us on a Wednesday; a few we met in the town square one weekend. Wednesdays aren't Wednesdays without Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Because if who we are on the other days isn't consistent with who we purport to be on Wednesdays, our friends will see right through us. Authentic relationship means not just giving out a "good for Wednesdays only" friendship voucher, but being accessible and proactive in those relationships on other days of the week, too.

Sometimes it is easier to turn people into projects. The temptation is to replay recorded responses instead of pursuing real relationship. It's easier to push our way through a conversation with our elbows out, defending our beliefs; it's harder to wait with our arms wide open, listen, and learn to ask helpful questions that draw out that which is in another person's heart. As someone who likes to talk and write and be heard, and someone who has strong convictions, this is something I must learn: to be slow to speak, and quick to listen.

People sometimes say that they have trouble finding our flat, because the doors inside our building don't have numbers on them. Recently when someone commented on this, our Asian friend chided her. He had noticed that our apartment is easy to identify: "This flat is the only one that has a 'Welcome' sign on the door."

And friends, it isn't much harder than that. The 'Welcome' sign cost one euro. Making friends and listening long costs more. But if you make people welcome into your life, any day of the week, every day of the week, they will notice.  If your faith is deep, they will notice. And surely they'll see the connection between the welcome you offer and the faith that you proffer. As Quereshi says, if you care about them, it's a lot more likely that they will care about your message and share their hearts with you. We got a glimpse of that, last Wednesday.

August 09, 2015

somehow, He does

Today we visited a neighbourhood full of refugees from Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan and other countries. Some of them have been there for years and have settled into apartment blocks, but others arrived as recently as ten days ago and are sleeping on cots in tents put up by the Red Cross. For me it was the first time visiting a designated "refugee neighbourhood", though I'm sure the scene must be similar at many facilities across Europe.

It's hard to understand how much the children we saw today have suffered, or the burdens they must carry. I ended up painting rowdy children's faces for a couple of hours and I wondered, between painting flowers (the girls' favourite request) and Spidermen (the boys' favourite) how painting a face can make a lasting difference for a child escaping war or starvation. Does it have any impact at all?

But lately I've been remembering that to believe in the God of the B!ble is to believe in a God so big that He can work even tiny things (like paint and a smile on a summer day) together for good. When I wasn't too distracted trying to draw webs correctly or reminding kids to wait their turn and not jostle each other, I tried to remind God of the little hearts belonging to the faces appearing in front of me. "See this little Spiderman, God? Remember him. See this little butterfly? Remember her."

And I know that somehow, He does.

July 31, 2015

when God is heavy

[Sometimes I look back in my files and see an almost-finished post. This one's from Asia, in 2014.]

It's a quiet weekend morning and I'm stretched across the foot of my friend's double bed, staring at the delicate pattern in her white curtain. I'm listening as she slowly divulges a dark story about her friend's poor decisions. Disappointment makes her voice drop and scrape as she talks about what is a heavy topic for a lazy Saturday morning. She swears me to secrecy about the weight she's carrying.

Not long later, I'm sitting on a second friend's bed and the story she tells me is similar in its gravity. Her neighbour literally chose his "neighbour's wife" over his own. Her tone is disgusted and distraught as she recounts the lurid tale, her eyes dark and fretful. "This is wrong! It's wrong!" I listen, and agree: it is wrong! (But what makes it wrong? How does she know it is wrong? Who says?)

I sit on a lot of beds; it's normal here. Our deeper conversations often take place in a female friend's room, her relational sanctum-sanctorum, if you will. One friend even laughed at the idea that we would sit and visit in the living room; she wanted us to visit in her bedroom. Something else is normal here, too, and it's not as laughablefriends carrying heavy burdens.

I hear statements like, "I am OK with one affair, but to have three or four affairs in quick succession? Now that is wrong!" Or, "I don't lie...except when it's a situation that I just can't escape without lying." As I shift on the end of the bed and listen to the sad stories unwind, it weighs on me to see how little distinction there is between truth and lies.

I shouldn't be surprised, because at times a friend mentions how his father taught him to lie about his age, or how her mother laughed off her small thefts as a child. Their confusion about truth is intergenerational, and its no wonder that they can't quite distinguish truth from error, when a clear, unchanging Standard was never taught to them. (And this is the case in homes all over the world, not just in Asia).

Something's missing. 
And that is "the knowledge of the glory of the LORD."  

Just one of the yummy meals my friend spoiled me with on her bed.

"Glory" comes from a Hebrew root word that denotes heaviness, and speaks of importance. It's translated so many ways in the Good Book because it seems to connote so many things. But I like to just go back to the root, "heavy, weighty." It helps me to understand: God is heavy. He carries weight. That's ultimately what we mean, when we talk about His glory. He is a big deal. He is the big deal!

If you've grown up in a home where truth was taught, and you haven't wandered particularly far from it, perhaps you (like me) have sometimes felt you have no story to tell. No dramatic tear-filled conversion, teenage pregnancies or prison stays to report.

"My parents taught me about the true God.
I believed, and still believe."

Kind of boring, right?
Won't draw a crowd, will it?

Sometimes I've even thought that my story of finding rest in gentle, humble Je'sus from a young age would be something people of other backgrounds couldn't relate to at all. It almost made me wish I had a more dramatic darkness-to-light testimony to share.

But one day, as I thought about this phrase, "For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea," I realized the eternal significance of a believing parent's work. A parent who raises his child with the knowledge of God is creating on a small scale the future earth that God speaks of here. He is structuring a mini-society in his home, where God is honoured (or "heavy") as He should be, and where truth cuts a straight line between wrong and right. 

That parent knows that when the child faces life on earth in its current condition, truth will be fallen in the street. But in his home, he seeks to create a solid base, full of the knowledge of Him, so his child is ready to make decisions grounded in who God is and what He has done.

What the wise parent knows is that when we don't allow God to be heavy, we end up carrying a lot of heaviness of our own, on our own.

What I realized is that my story wasn't boring; it was the kind of story that ideally everyone would have. God meant for every human's ideas to be shaped by truth-telling mediatorial authorities (like parents, teachers, elders) who let Him, as ultimate authority, have sway in every area.

I was raised with the knowledge of the glory of God, and by God's grace, accepted it early on—and my life has had a kind of lightness and straightforwardness to it that others who have come to know Him later have not experienced. That does not mean that I have had no problems, but I just mean that when we realize His weight at thirty or takes a lot more soul-scraping to change from seeing things our way to seeing things His way.

The story of Rosaria's discovery of the glory of God is one of my favourites, because she is so articulate about the enormous worldview shift that came about when she came to know Him in her thirties:
"I discovered that God isn't just a narrative we pick like summer berries or leave for the next person; nor is God a set of social conventions tailored for the weak of mind, nor is God a consumerist social construct to exist in the service of Christian imperialist ideologies and right-wing politics. Rather, I discovered that God through Jesus Christ exists, the triune God…exists, whether we acknowledge him or not. I discovered that God wasn't very happy with me."
She goes on,  
"This wordconversionis simply too tame and too refined to capture the train wreak that I experienced in coming face-to-face with the Living God.... When I became a [follower], I had to change everythingmy life, my friends, my writing, my teaching, my advising, my clothes, my speech, my thoughts....."
As Rosaria discovered, God was, is, and always will be weighty. He doesn't become glorious when we discover Him; He always has been. But the question is, do we acknowledge Who He really is? Or will we be bowed with our own burdens forever?

When He gets heavy in our own hearts, life changes. The general distinctions between truth and lies fall firmly into place. When God is heavy, we know the Standard: He is the standard. If we're willing to call wrong wrong, and right right, He gives us power to walk in the right and not the wrong. 

A few years ago I heard a wedding reception speech in which the father of the bride said that he had begun to pray for his children before he even had a wife. I knew that he had sought to raise His children to know and love God. And on that day, as he watched his daughter marry a man after God's own heart, his eyes shone and his joy was full. The baton was being passed in the relay of truth: another home where, by God's grace, they could perpetuate a legacy of preaching God as the heavyweight in all areas. Their home could be as full of the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as any home on earth could be.

But if you were raised in a family tree with amputated limbs, by a mother with a wandering eye, or by a father who didn't acknowledge the truth...there is just as much hope for you as for anyone else, though learning the knowledge of Him does take time. It takes time to rethink life, to let Him be heavy, to acknowledge His glory in every area of your life. 

I sat many times on a third bed in Asia, hearing out a third friend as she described the changes happening in her soul after she realized who God is, and started letting Him be the heavyweight in her life. The process was and still is difficult for her, and for anyone who lives in light of His glory (whether raised with the knowledge of God's glory or without).

But it's far better than the alternative. Because when He's not heavy, everything else is. 

Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift! 

"For the earth will be filled 
with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, 
as the waters cover the sea." —God to Habakkuk

"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." —J'esus

"Throw all your worry on Him, 
because He cares for you." —Peter

"Give your burdens to the LORD, 
and He will take care of you...." —David

July 15, 2015

astounding grace

Tonight an Asian friend in Europe heard a definition of grace. It went something like this, "Imagine that you parked illegally, and deserved a parking ticket. You had absolutely no money to pay the fee. The lady writing up tickets filled out your ticket, but then proceeded to pay it herself. She showed you completely undeserved kindness—that is grace." A fairly simple definition, right?

I wish I had a picture of our friend's face at that moment, when he heard Biblical grace described for the first time. He was utterly astounded; he had never heard of such a thing. To him, grace carried the idea of balancing something out, not receiving something completely undeserved....even if only a paid parking ticket.

Tonight's Asian brought me bangles. I didn't mind!

Earlier today I spoke to a sweet friend back in Asia. I told her that I had met someone here, from her homeland, that made me think of her.

"I know you're a woman," I quipped, "but this man reminds me of you."

She laughed, "How is that? Does he wear specs?"

"No," I smiled. "He cares about spiritual things. He wants to know God and know truth. Making a difference matters to him."

Then I told her that if God were to give a job in her country to my husband, we would seriously consider moving back there. She tried to convince me otherwise.

"There is so much injustice here, Julie. Women are not safe. And what if you have children? You wouldn't want them to be raised here...." She concluded, "If he has an opportunity to have a job in a better place, really you should take it." 

But this evening, when I saw a simple definition of grace make an Asian almost jump off his chair, I remembered why I left my heart in his homeland—because principles like grace, that are part of my everyday experience, are virtually foreign to most there. Theirs is a land with many spiritually-minded people, and a land where a little truth goes a long way.

We know that astounding grace, and for us, the question is—does it make us leap out of our chairs? Would we go a long way, for a little truth?

July 13, 2015

beyond this valley

[I wrote this post about a week ago, near the end of what I hope was our first and last heat wave of the summer].

We've had a string of sweltering summer days here. Despite my tropical roots and my mostly-hot time in Asia, this European heat wave is still withering me! Our third floor apartment never really seems to fully cool off, and this country is too praktisch to have air conditioning (after all, it only gets this hot for a few weeks each year). So we're taking extra showers, keeping lights off, avoiding baking, and drinking iced coffee. I stopped while writing this paragraph, to go water to drink, because it's just that hot.

We're struggling to have the energy to work in this heat, even with the luxury of cold water and regular meals. But we have friends who can't drink water or have a snack whenever they want. Many people in our city aren't eating or drinking between sunrise and sunset (about 3:30am and about 9:30pm here) for 30 days. One such friend moved to northern Sweden a few months ago, and he couldn't have chosen a worse time and place to celebrate Ramadan—this year it falls at the hottest time of year, and at the time when there is virtually no night. Our friend, and others who follow the same religion and live in the North, have a difficult decision to make: not to eat for days on end could endanger their bodies, but to eat could apparently endanger their souls. Knowing of their physical affliction, along with their spiritual hunger and thirst, reminds me of how blessed we are, even on these fiercely hot days.

It is fascinating to watch ancient religions, which were formerly separated by huge distances, stumbling into today's smaller, more connected world. I don't suppose Muhamm'ad started this fast maliciously, realizing that for some people, their days would be twenty-two hours long, followed by only a two-hour night. He likely knew nothing of Sweden; fasting during daylight hours worked where he lived. It was a local standard taught to a local community.

We could say that religions like his are culture-bound. As the travel time between different cultures and religions shrinks, and secularism raises more skeptics, world religions—each one claiming to teach universal truth—are put to the test. Do they work cross-culturally? Can they function on a different continent? Most importantly, can people of other cultures be convinced of and transformed by their message?

The more I learn of the traditions of various religions, the more I realize that their laws are covered in the fingerprints of men. Their very creeds are created by finite men, held captive by time and space, laying down principles for the world that they knewlaws that worked in their era, customs that fit their local culture. 

In Asia I have dear friends who are part of a religious sect that is quite well-known in that area, but ill-recognized in the rest of the world. My friends took me to temples or funerals, and once I even climbed one of their holy sites, a temple-covered hill, to see the thousands of idols at the top. I remember watching a procession celebrating the end of an important fast in our city. The ones who had successfully completed the fast were triumphantly paraded through the streets on painted elephants or in ornate carriages. I wondered to myself that several million people belong to this faith, yet most of the rest of the world has never heard of it.

My friends spoke with pride of their faith community, but they really didn't know the details of their religion. If we asked the details behind a fast, or about the ins and outs of the food laws, they would suggest that we meet with a wise uncle who read their holy writings. Other times they would recommend us to a lauded teacher who was coming to town, who could give us answersthough we never pursued it so far.

For the faithful, their diet was extremely limiting, with anything from potatoes and carrots to eggs and meat being banned year-round, and various other periods of time when they were expected to fast. In a desert climate with temperatures known to soar above +45°C, the esteemed priest or nun equivalents are not to use electricity (though having someone else turn on the fan for them is sometimes a way out) and they can travel only by foot. These are just a few of the boundaries placed on them by their system.

Their beliefs were an endless maze for me. Their practices constantly raised questions that I wondered why they did not ask. For example, why would God create food full of helpful nutrients, and make it available to you, only to tell you to scramble for ingredients to assemble less nutritious meals? If God rewards those who climb various holy mountains in remote parts of southeast Asia, how is that fair to the lame, the elderly, the sick, or people who live far from the religious headquarters? Most importantly, I always wondered, how can a religion deemed as the one, true way have been around for 3,000 years and still be a side sect in a few states in Asia? If this is the truth, why don't we see people relocating from all over the world to live at the base of this mountain and acquire good karma? Such questions were not voiced. (Critical thinking is less valued than respect to elders—to pose such queries would be disrespectful. The easiest path to peaceful relationships, which they value deeply, is to not think too critically).

Unfortunately, the answer to the questions I wanted to ask lies in the fact that their religion was made by people trapped in human culture. The esteemed elders may have had a form of godliness, but even if they climbed to the top of their holy mountain on a clear day, they literally couldn't see more than a valley or two away, let alone see the hearts of men, or see the future. So they created a religious system that seemed to answer the big questions of least in their valley, or in their region of the desert.

These short-sighted and specific laws only make sense in a particular place or time. This problem is not unique to Asian religions. Think of the Amish, and their laws about technology or attire which seem so cumbersome today. Remember Mormons back-pedaling on the issue of African-Americans not being allowed in their church, because that started to look bad? Orthodox Jews struggle to understand how the Torah's laws should be kept in today's era (because they don't see that the law has already been fulfilled in Christ).

If a religion claims to have a universal message or offer universal salvation, its message needs to resound universally. In fact, it needs to rise above culture and offer something that reaches the spirit of every man and woman. It needs to be flexible enough to be applicable in any time or location, yet robust enough to not be crushed by opposition. One of the greatest proofs of the Bible's uniqueness is its ability to transcend culture.

In Christianity, the structure of truth is solid, but the way in which it is carried out is quite flexible. Here are just a few examples that came to mind as I considered this:
  • Worship regulations: Christians have been given a precedent of worshiping corporately on Sunday, and of regularly remembering His death and resurrection. But if they live in Central Asia and have a Thursday-Friday weekend, or provide essential services on Sunday, there is no rule that condemns getting together on another day. For the remembrance meeting, we were given an example of using wine and unleavened breadbut I've had it with mango juice and chapati, or bread with yeast and grape juice, and it works! Christians enjoy visiting Jerusalem and some enjoy Jewish traditions, but there is no compulsion to visit there during a believer's lifetime, nor to pray facing a holy location.
  • Food regulations: I wrote a whole post on this because I think followers of Christ should know and preserve their liberty in the area of food—it's a big part of what makes Christianity so transferable worldwide!
  • Beverage regulations: We are clearly taught not to get drunk, but other than that, Christians vary greatly on their views about alcohol consumption.
  • Clothing regulations: We are taught to dress modestlybut we are free to interpret that in a way that works in our culture. There is no mention of gingham or plaid, burkas or burkinis, saris or kimonos. 
  • Special days: Christians get lumped in with everyone else, because we are said to have our festivals (Christmas, Easter) just like they do, but really, there is no compulsion from the Scriptures that we are to celebrate those days at all, and no threat of punishment if we don't.
  • Marriage and family regulations: Our book deals with gender roles, but it still leaves a lot of room for interpretation of how exactly those roles play out.
The New Testament was certainly written in an ancient culture by men who were products of their time and place, just as the other "holy" books were. Those men couldn't see beyond their "valley" or the next any better than another author of one of the world's great religious texts could. So how did a burly bunch of near-Eastern fishermen pen words that a European psychology student friend of ours called "modern"? How did they have the foresight to write words that are still expounded by intellectual preachers in New York? How is it that the Bible's message is relevant in cultures anywhere from the mountain peaks of Switzerland to the overgrown valleys of Papua New Guinea?

The Book we have could only have been breathed by an infinite God who could see past, present and future, and who knows our inner person. There is no other valid explanation for how our Book transcends culture. John Stonestreet writes, "the Bible transcends cultural trends and realities because the Bible is the context of all cultures." To say it another way, Truth existed before culture; culture did not generate Truth. The Bible explains our common identity, origin, purpose, and destiny because its author wrote our story. Our religion transcends culture because it diagnoses and remedies what ails the human spirit, no matter the colour of the body containing the spirit. It works on every continent, in every country.

It's evening here now, and the weather has cooled considerably, for the first time in four or five days. The night breeze tumbles through our kitchen window, as my mind goes to our various thirsty friends. They have strong family ties have widely-varying cultures, presuppositions and philosophies. At times I wonder if the Word is the universally life-giving Bread and Water that it claims to be. Does it really quench thirst cross-culturally? Can people of other cultures really be fed by its message? Or is it just a local phenomenon? Is it just convincing in my valley?

The best way to know if our "product" works is to test it, to give it out. They can't know if our bread is good unless they taste it; they can't drink of our water unless we put it on the table.

A few nights ago, as another hot Ramadan day ended, our Syrian friend said his prayers facing Mecca (previously only known as "the vacuum cleaner corner") on a bath towel my husband arranged for him on the floor. He then broke his fast with a meal that we ate together at 10pm. He was revived, drinking cold water, serving up his share of supper, and laughingly recounting incidents from his childhood. Our visit started and ended late, and by the time the guests left, the dishes were washed and we fell into bed, we were hot and exhausted. But just our bodies were tired; our spirits were alive. Because at one point after dessert, when I looked up at our Syrian friend, I could see in his eyes that more than his body was being fed and watered. His spirit was eating and drinking, too. And to give that food and water, we'd heat our already-hot kitchen and stuff the freezer with ice cubes a thousand times over.

This religion works, friend, in more than just our valley—"to Jerusalem...Judea...Samaria...and to the ends of the earth." Hand a loaf to a hungry one, or a cup to a thirsty one, and see for yourself.

"With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation."

"This is the bread that comes down from heaven, 
so that one may eat of it and not die. 
I am the living bread that came down from heaven. 
If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. 
And the bread that I will give 
for the life of the world is my flesh." 

"But whoever drinks of the water 
that I will give him will never be thirsty again. 
The water that I will give him will become in him 
a spring of water welling up to eternal life." 

"Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; 
and he who has no money, come, buy and eat!" 

July 06, 2015

to be at home

I spent almost two years in Asia, and most of the time I was there, I lived with two new Asian friends. They were from other cities (albeit in the same country) and we had all come to our host city because of our jobs. We were of vastly different worldviews and backgrounds, but found each other through the local version of Kijiji and forged a partnership, a little home made up of single girls in a country that largely still doesn't really understand single, working women. We had our ups and downs in living together, but our necessary dependency on each other created an important bond.

Living with people of such different faith and culture stretched me daily in ways I had not been stretched before. For example, never before had a roommate asked me if she could hang her god cabinet in the common dining room, or hired a maid who insisted on disrupting the order of objects in my room. But living with them gave me deeper relationships with them and deeper insights into their culture than I could have had any other way. My husband and I, now that we have our own independent home, could likely never so deeply experience life with the people around us, as I did in living with roommates. I am thankful for their friendship, and for the many things I learned from and with them.

Beverages on one of our our roommate dates

One positive thing my roommates, and our host culture, taught me was a new appreciation for having someone around the house. Before Asia, I had valued the idea of a stay-at-home mother or stay-at-home wife, but only after going to Asia did I begin to value just generally having someone around.

It took a while for me to understand that to my roommates, home meant a place where there was someone around. Someone who could cook, clean, and have warm rotis sitting in their insulated box when they came home. To me, home was a place where I could enjoy my privacy, and I enjoyed being home alone. To them, home was a place where there needed to be other people or noise, even if that was just the TV. I think this comes from their typically inter-generational homes ("joint families") where cousins from two, three or four different sets of parents grow up on the same property or even in the same home, almost like siblings. Grandparents live with their children and grandchildren, and therefore the house always has someone around.

In this warm culture, they're not used to being alone or eating alone. Our dear neighbour pleaded with me to allow her to serve me homemade suppers when my flatmates were away, because she couldn't bear the idea of me eating alone, or not eating "properly" while they were gone...though to me, having the flat to myself for a few days usually meant a quiet reprieve that my beleaguered introvert self appreciated.

There was always a bit of tension between me and the roommates about how much access others should have to our home. It boggled my mind how my roommates would allow a person they'd known for a few months have the keys to our home, or even how they'd leave the key with the neighbour whom they'd only known for slightly longer. (For all I knew, the neighbour could be making and selling copies of it). We were constantly trying new solutions that could keep us all happy, but there was never a perfect one: if the maids had free reign of the house while no one was home, I was unhappy. If my roommates didn't have homemade food waiting for them when they got home, they were unhappy. We were never able to see eye-to-eye on this, and perhaps God knew it was time to have me to live with someone of a more similar cultural background!

Because of our key holder issues, it was always a relief when an aunty, mom or sister would come to stay with us. In our corner of Asia, when a female relative came, she often came for weeks or months. During her stay, she could be the "at home" person, taking vegetable deliveries, letting in the cleaning lady, giving instructions to the cook, handing over the car keys to the car cleaner, and collecting ironed clothes from the press wala. It gave a sense of comfort even to me, to have someone around our house, who knew what was going on during the daytime and managed the many part-time employees my roommates collected. It didn't hurt if the aunty wanted to make some delicious chole masala or pau badji for me, and give me a good night hug, either. I learned to appreciate the family members that would come stay with us.

My corner in our shared flat, probably after the maid cleaned my room.

I brought some of this stronger sentiment about having someone at home to Europe with me. My husband and I talked about having me look for a job locally, but my basic language skills would probably land me only a simple job, and we didn't like the idea of my hours or holiday time conflicting with my husband's or with serving others together. We were willing to try it, though, and just before we started pounding the pavement to look for outside work for me, suddenly God brought along a significant amount of writing and design work that I can do from home, which made the decision easier to have me be around home.

I savour being home. When a package comes mid-day and I can receive it (saving a trip to pick it up somewhere) or when the plumber needs to come in and check our hot water heater, I'm glad to be here. When I can format a book spread and still fill the house with yummy aromas long before my husband arrives, I'm thankful. Or when I can rearrange my work schedule to allow for morning breakfast get-togethers or a spontaneous late lunch with a friend who needs someone to talk to, I realize I'm blessed to be flexible. One week when my husband was terribly sick and needed extra care, I was glad to not have to head out the door each morning and leave his weak form behind, because my vows are to my husband before my other work.

I know that many wives would love to be at home and still earn something to help with their household income, but haven't found a way to do that. I know that many single women would love to focus more on their homes and ministry through their homes, but supporting themselves means going to a typical 9 to 5 job each day. So, I remember that it is a dear privilege which I currently have, of being physically present in our home, and I want to use it to bless those who have less flexibility in their work or study schedules.

At one of my pre-wedding showers, a gifted speaker exhorted me to be a woman who is a Titus 2 homemaker. Friends of various backgrounds were attending, and I suppose that when the speaker said she was going to talk about making a home, some of them were leaning back and expecting a wimpy talk about baking pies and hanging frames just so. But to everyone's surprise, the speaker told us about Jael. Yes, that would be the woman in Judges who pounded a tent peg through the enemy's head while he was resting in her tent.

The speaker contrasted the world's idea of a homemaker being simply a "housekeeper" (implying that the duties are merely physical, like dusting or dish-washing) with the godly, eternally-minded design for making a home. She spoke of the value spiritually of having someone physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually present at home. God's homemaker is, she said, a spiritual woman who is discerning, knows that God's people are at war, and uses the resources that are available to her to bring down ungodly strongholds. The fleeing enemy Sisera napped in Jael's presence, because he was sure that a gullible housewife wouldn't cause any danger to him. Like many today, he thought a woman at home would have little intellect; she probably would not even know who he was. But this housewife had her head in the game, and finished him off. In protecting her home, Jael protected their whole nation and even blessed generations to come. The speaker pointed out that Mary, the mother of our Saviour, and Jael are the only ones called "blessed among women" in the Scripture. 

That was a powerful shower message, and one I will remember my whole life. I'm glad she didn't mention wearing a plaid apron or dusting on Wednesdays, but instead focused on the overarching picture of a godly wife, and the power and value of being at home. Titus 2 teaches that a woman's behaviour in relation to her home either honours or dishonours God's Word; it is of great importance.

In my short months "at home", I've realized that it is possible to be physically at home and not mentally, emotionally or spiritually at home. When I take on projects that drain me completely, so that I cannot keep up with the needs of my husband and home, I'm not really at home. When I'm wasting time on social media or doing unimportant things, and putting the things my husband would like me to do at the bottom of my to-do list, I'm not really "at home." I'm currently learning what it means to balance and properly prioritize my home work and my outside-of-home work. 
Our home is in its early days, and I long for it to be a place where God's Word is honoured, and where my husband and others love to be. I'm thankful for my Asian roommates, and for Jael, who taught me to put a greater value on having someone whose job it is to be at home.

June 30, 2015

"are you feeling settled yet?"

A friend who is preparing for a big move called me "brave" for making my last big transition, to marriage and to Europe. To be honest, her upcoming move is probably much more drastic than mine, not in number of kilometres, but because in her mid-twenties, she is leaving the only place she has ever lived, and leaving friends she has had since elementary school. This transition really will be a big one for her, but as you probably know, I have gone through a lot more transitions in my life than she has, and moving to Europe didn't feel particularly courageousit was just what needed to happen, if I wanted to get married. (And I did want to get married!)

I realized after this last transition, though, that I am learning about big life changes and how to handle them in a healthy way. I'm finding some common threads in my various stories of adaptation to a new place or situation. Writing back to my friend, I told her two things that I've learned about transition, and I thought I'd share them here, too. I speak mostly of changes in location, but I'm sure some of these thoughts could be helpful in other transitions, like changes in job, stage of life, or relationship.

The first thing I've learned about adjusting after transition is to expect it to take a while. Even if the first days or weeks seem exciting and you feel up for anything, you can expect that the transition will hit you hard at some point. Give yourself some time to settle in! Don't expect too much of yourself in the first weeks or months after a big change. I don't mean this in a selfish, hole-yourself-up-in-your-room-eating-Doritos kind of way, but more in a it's-normal-to-feel-a-bit-unstable-after-big-change kind of way.

I remember standing in the cafeteria at my college, perhaps the day after arriving, and having a staff member kindly inquire: "Are you feeling settled yet?" I realized she probably expected a "yes", but I was frank with her, "No, I'm not." Another person less-than-sensitively inquired of my dad, who was dropping me off and going back to South America, "Are you going to cry when you say goodbye tomorrow?" My father just looked at the inquirer and said, "Yes, I probably will." (Perhaps I get my directness from him). We both wept when we said our goodbyes, and it took a long time for me to settle in. That whole year, I never quite felt at home, but I knew that it was a good place for me to be, and that God was with me, and that made all the difference.

When I moved to Asia, the transition was enormous, and I remember bawling and not even knowing exactly why I was doing so, sometimes. For the first time in my life, I actually cried while on the phone with my parents, which I'm sure made them feel quite helpless, on the other end of the line in South America. I had a lot of difficult moments, but some of them slowly eased as I learned a new routine, became able to do errands by myself, and got to set up my own room and stock my own fridge. Of course, making friends and growing in relationships locally helped a lot, too.

Then I came to Europe, and it was a big transition again, because I was adjusting to married life (FYI, there is now a man who sleeps in my bed!) along with adjusting to a new country (with its ultra-fast store checkout lines, brusque-sounding language and few familiar faces). I wanted to "just be myself" and adjust quickly, but there were some days where I felt especially mopey. I was lonely, and when my husband came home, I literally just wanted him to wrap his arms around me for a while. The poor man was patient with my clingy moments.

I am thankful now that we kept our first month or so after arriving in Europe intentionally low key. There weren't many evening plans or high expectations. My husband went back to his regular job during the daytime, but I didn't start doing freelance work; I spent time writing thank-you notes, organizing cupboards and learning to cook in a new country. During my first month I had a terrible cold, lost my voice for about five days, and had a lot of emotional processing to do. My body was probably confused with the number of time zone shifts it had done in the last two months, and I had crazy dreams and trouble sleeping. For these reasons and others, I was glad we hadn't planned a busy first month. We had our first Christmas together during that first month, and kept it somewhat quiet as well.

My belief in taking transition slowly was reinforced when I spoke to a couple here who dove head-long into a significant commitment in their local fellowship early in their time here. Today they are still struggling with that commitment, but it is difficult to back out of what others have come to expect of them. Seven months into our time here, our schedule is fuller, I am doing quite a bit of freelance work, the requests for our help or time come more frequently, and our "people we'd like to have over" list keeps growing longer. I'm often thankful that I had about three months without as many commitments, so that we could figure out a few basics of marriage and life together, before pledging myself to much outside our home. If you're going through upheaval, and can afford to build in an intentional transition period, I highly recommend it.

What I've realized is that if the greyish transition clouds don't rise after a reasonable amount of time, perhaps your problem is deeper. But in my last move, I felt a definite shift after a few months. The moments of blubbering and confusion lessened. I could see personal growth. When I passed a simple but official language test, and this gave me courage to speak a bit more to strangers while out and about. When my husband was sick and I went to our Sunday group on my own, and I realized that it wasn't just my husband's fellowship was mine, too! When a new place starts to have familiar places, faces, foods....then I realize that I'm settling in.

Speaking of familiar things, other than affording time to settle in, my other "settling in" tip is that finding things in my new place that remind me of my old place helps me feel settled. Of course, you can do this by bringing with pictures or mementos from your old home, and I always do bring some of those along. Or if you're transitioning into marriage, keeping a hobby that you really enjoyed in your single years might help you as you change life stages. But you can also find new things or activities in the new place or stage, that remind you of what you had before.

For example, in Asia I occasionally let myself splurge on little things or activities that gave me some culture or transition stress escape. I even made a list in the back of my daytimer of these things. One of the nicest activities for me (which I only did a couple of times) was going to one of the five star hotels in our city by myself, ordering the $10 Western breakfast buffet, and sitting with my laptop and notebook, writing, reading the Word, or praying. It was cathartic for me; I wrote this post from there. On my dusty walk home from work, sometimes I would buy a bag of gummi bears, salted California almonds or a UK-brand popsicle from the import shop, because they added a little stability to my very different world. I read an article by a lady who always missed her piano when living abroad, but as she noted, "Pianos don't fit well with a nomadic lifestyle." But after about ten years of that, she finally bought a piano, because it brought a lot of pleasure and familiarity to her to be able to play the piano to relax, even if it seemed like an expensive "extra". In Europe, I noticed that once I started finding freelance work again, it busied my mind and also gave me a sense of familiarity in a new world. It helped me to feel stable, employing my skills in an area where I had years of experience, while I was facing a steep learning curve in so many others (new marriage, new language, new house, new country, new friends).

At the moment, I am feeling as settled as I can be expected, I think! When we discuss the possibility of moving yet again, and the future is so unknown, I feel less settled. But for the time being, the transition anxiety has plateaued, and
(1) giving myself some time/cutting myself some slack during transition, and 
(2) finding some familiar foods, activities or items amidst all the newness 
helps me to adjust to change in a healthy way.

Of course, the best transition tool I know is to:
dwell in the secret place of the Most High,
abide under the shadow of the Almighty. 
say of the Lord, 'He is my refuge and my fortress;
My God, in Him I will trust.'
Surely He shall deliver you...
He shall cover you with His feathers,
And under His wings you shall take refuge;
His truth shall be your shield and buckler.
Because you have made the Lord...
your dwelling place, No evil shall befall you,
Nor shall any plague come near your dwelling;
For He shall give His angels charge over you,
To keep you in all your ways.
All these earthly transitions are temporary ones, and our lasting roots must be dug down deep in our omnipresent, omnipotent God. He is our dwelling place, no matter where we abide geographically. Sometimes listening to Psalm 91 on repeat is just what I need to focus my mind on my unchanging One, especially in times of change. There is no settledness on earth without the peace that things are settled between my God and myself.

But assuming that you are dwelling in Him, it can also help to speak in practical terms during times of upheaval. I hope this bit of earthly transition advice might help someone who has just gone through change to remember that when asked, "Are you feeling settled yet?" (or "Hast du dich gut eingelebt?") it's OK to be honest and answer, "No, I'm not!" or "No, I haven't." It's normal to need some time to settle in, and some familiar earthly comforts can help ease the jolting on this earthly journey toward our eternal Home. Gute Reise!

June 23, 2015

when I didn't need new friends

A few years ago I took a trip around North America to visit friends. After spending time with my transplanted friends in their far-flung locations, I wrote a post about how I realized that good friends can be hard to find after moving. This wasn't a startling revelation to me, but just a reminder of something I've been learning ever since I left home: many people are in need of new friends. Once I heard that one in three people are lonely. It has become my default to assume that people would appreciate a new friend, unless I am informed otherwise. My trip around North America only confirmed that.

Making new friends and parting with old ones has always been a part of my life. In my growing up years at our expat school in South America, due to the nature of the expat community and our parents' work, there were always comings and goings. There were new teachers coming, former teachers leaving, new classmates coming, and former classmates leaving. If they weren't coming or going, I was, so my friend circle was always changing. I suppose I had a lot of friends, but many shifted in and out throughout my childhood.

Other than the moves I made as a child, I have moved to a new continent three times, and I've been thinking about the friend-making process that always has to happen after each major move.

When I left South America for North America to attend college, I was only seventeen, and while it was sad, I had always expected that I would leave someday. The future was scary, but it also seemed interesting, and many of my friends were moving away too, so it was the thing to do.

It took some time to find "my people" in Canada, but eventually I did. God gave me good friends, who would cry with me or laugh with me, talk theology or tolerate my weird (I do not use that term lightly) humour, scrub my stove for me when I moved yet again, or invite my parents over when they came to visit. I moved a few times within Canada, but mostly the moves were within the same province, and some friendships spanned that eight-year stint entirely. I found good friends, and I didn't really want or need new ones.

So, when I left North America for Asia, the goodbyes were difficult, but the vision I had for living in Asia propelled me forward. While in Asia, I missed my far-away friends terribly, and annoyed everyone within five metres of me with constant showings of pictures of my baby niece. Even with all those forced niece viewings, I managed to make new friends in Asia. We came from vastly different cultures, but their warm hospitality to me, a bumbling foreigner who didn't know their customs, blessed me over and over.

The most treasured portions of my Asia journey were not what you might expect. I enjoyed riding an elephant, but the friends who got up at 5am to arrange the ride, or to ride along with me (especially the one who later admitted to being petrified of elephants) were the ones who made the ride special. The elaborate meals my friends treated me to at nice restaurants were delicious, but better were the honest conversations in my friends' bedrooms, kitchens, and living rooms, when we talked about the things that matter most in life. These were the best moments in Asia, and though it was hard to leave Canada, I was so glad I made friends in Asia.

But last year, when I left Asia and moved to Europe, the friend-maker in me felt exhausted. I felt like a haphazard, unfaithful friend, abandoning my Asian friends who so kindly threw me pre-wedding parties (though they couldn't attend our wedding), and flying through North America just long enough to recruit friends help to pull off a wedding, not long enough to deeply reconnect to community there. Then I tumbled into Europe, into my husband's fellowship here, into a new language and culture, and into new relationships, again. I thought, I don't need new friends. I don't want new friends. I have all the friends I want, and all the friends I can handle. My heart wanted to put up a big "NO VACANCY" sign and burrow into long distance relationships. Logistically, the obvious choice was for me to move to my husband's country, not him to mine, but part of me asked: "Why do I have to make friends...again?"

But seven months later, here I am, making friends...again.

It's dangerous, this friend-making thing.
You love, and then you leave.
Wouldn't leaving be easier, if you didn't love?

One of our new friends here is the Syrian man I mentioned in a previous post. We just met him last month,  and have had him over a couple of times. He's already talking about moving to another country in the fall. I am not sure why we dare make friends with him: it is hard to love people who aren't settled, especially when you aren't settled either. Besides, he's not the happy-go-lucky, life-of-the-party type that so often attracts friends. He carries a heavy burden, as a man fleeing war-torn country would. His accented English and German blend all together; you have to have patience and a rudimentary knowledge of both languages to understand him.

We should know better than to make friends with him,
but we almost can't help it, I guess. Last week, he showed up at our table with fresh apricots. (Single Eastern male guests are better at bringing hostess gifts than single Western male guests, I have learned. I have even received a Pakistani scarf in exchange for supper one night!) He told us that in Syria they drink apricot juice at Ramadan, which was beginning the next day. He ate a meal and read a Story with us and four others.

A girl at the table asked him a question about his background, and his history started leaking out. We munched our apricots quietly, piling the pits in a dish. He spoke of dreams that gave him direction to come to Europe. His words pooled and sloshed between us, around the apricot pit bowls and Haribo gummies and supper's remains. When the deluge finished, we didn't have much to say, but perhaps the most important part was that we let the story flow, and didn't rush to wipe it up. Indeed, we agreed, God brought him here.

I remembered that day when I first told him that he should give his number to my husband, so that we could keep in touch. He grinned, raised his hands, and said four poignant words, "Finally, I have friends!" That serious, too-old-for-his-years face was brighter than usual, and I couldn't help but wonder if the tide that left him on a European shore did so that he might come to know everlasting Love. He described the bits and pieces of what he has learned of this Faith as, "...something deeper than I have seen before."

At this moment, I'm waiting for the doorbell to ring, expecting another friend, who needs someone to talk to about life right now. Actually, I don't know if I am her friend yet, because this is not warm-blooded, make-friends-in-the-elevator Asiayou must pay your dues as a Bekannter (acquaintance) before being brought into the Freund category. But I think the rules are not so stark in the family of God. Although she must know 100 people in this town better than she knows me, and although she has to struggle to find English words to express herself to me, she asked to come talk. This must mean that she needs a friend, at least today, though she might not toss up her arms with joy, like a Syrian would.

When I look at my move to Europe with the Father's eyes, I realize that maybe the Father moved me not because needed or wanted new friends, but because others did. In the last seven months in Europe we have opened our small apartment and smaller fridge to people of every assortment. We ordered a larger table. We salvaged some extra chairs. We put me to work doing something I can do without strong language skills: making food. My husband said one of the highlights of our first six months together here was his birthday party, when our home filled with faces from ten different nations, people whom we have allowed to become dangerously dear to us. And maybe the Father knew that I needed these new friends more than I thought I did.

Courage looks different in different lives. For our Syrian friend, his courage was demonstrated when he risked death to escape Syria for Europe. For my German friend, speaking a difficult truth to her friend who is walking away from the faith takes a brave heart, as does naming her sin to me and asking for prayer.

But perhaps for me, brave looks more ordinary. Brave is making green tea with ginger and honey for our Syrian friend, and inviting him back again. Brave is letting my heart mingle with my German friend's heart, as she shares her struggle across the table and we pray together. Brave is perfecting my bran muffin and chai latte recipes for another new-to-me person, or befriending internationals who are always going and coming. Brave is loving here, loving now, even when another international move could be in our near future, too (and dwelling on this makes me feel like I might tear into little pieces).

We have such a good friend in our Father. 
Even when I didn't want new friends, 
He knew that they need me, 
and that I need them.

"Do not forsake your friend
or a friend of your family, 
and do not go to your relative's house
when disaster strikes you
better a neighbor nearby 
than a relative far away.

"Now that you have purified yourselves 
by obeying the truth 
so that you have sincere love for each other, 
love one another deeply, from the heart.

"Love never gives up, never loses faith, 
is always hopeful, 
and endures through every circumstance." 

June 07, 2015

a name and a tower

It's 23:11 on the Paris metro. After a long day of seeing nearly every classic Paris postcard shot (and about 10,000 mini Tour d'Eiffel keychains) we're running our index fingers along colourful maps to figure our way back to our hotel.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see a lanky black lady fit herself into the seat next to me. She's busy on her phone, playing a game where she feeds and washes a poorly-rendered cartoon potato. (You read that correctly.) I look at her more directly and realize that her arms are scarred, and her fingernails have worn, chipped maroon polish, like the hands of a lady who works hard.

A few seats away a man carrying a large toolbox perches on a small seat all by himself. He looks a bit dusty, like he could be a labourer at a construction site. I wonder about the time, Is he just coming home from work now, so late? He's in another world, talking to someone named Mahmod on his phone.

In the metro car ahead of us, loud music starts and teenagers are dancing and yelping. The commotion goes on for 5 or 10 minutes, and when the crowd of teenagers begins to clear, the instigator surfaces. She's a chunky girl travelling with a portable boom box on wheels, jovial as all get out. I wonder at her obvious courage and charisma, to start a dance party with strangers in a public place, and then pester metro travellers for coins.

The Paris metro feeds my curiosity about people and life, with its never-ending procession of people coming and going through its doors. I wonder about their histories, heartaches, hopes....

It's my second time in Paris, and this time I'm less concerned with getting the perfect picture of the Louvre or the city skyline. I have more time to sit on metro seats and park benches and take in the swarms of people. Under the Eiffel Tower it looks and sounds like a gathering from all nations. As does all of Paris: here the Jamaican and African street dancers, there the Lebanese kebab or crepe shops manned by tired-looking immigrants. Here the dolled-up Americans and Brazilians living the dream on the Champs d'Elyses, there an Eastern-looking lady with her hair under wraps, begging for coins. Local school children carry wreaths alongside veterans near the Arc de Triomphe, and I can't help but notice than only a minimal percentage of them "look French" (read: are Caucasian).

Big cities make promises, of fun, of glamour, of riches, of famemillions have gathered in Paris to make good on those promises. No matter how many years we are from Babel, the human heart moves in the same direction:
"Come, let us build ourselves a city,
and a tower whose top is in the heavens;
let us make a name for ourselves,
lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth."

I see a city pulsating with souls. Small images of God:
...locking padlocks on chain-link bridges to somehow immortalize their mortal love.
...longing to remember and be remembered, and taking pictures of themselves with world-renowned monuments like their lives depend on it.
...pushing their way to the front of the line, or the top of the tower.

I see a city pulsating with souls who choose either their own glory, name or tower, or His glory, His name, His tower. I don't have to look too far to see it; I have seen my own heart, desiring my own glory in the form a me-centered conversation, schedule,

The big city with the big tower can't keep all it has pledged, and there is more disappointment here than there is joy, as always happens when humans set out to seek their own glory.

A few weekends ago we were in a quieter place, hiking in the forest, and a friend of a friend came along. I had never met him before, but we covered a kilometre or two of the hike side-by-side and he told me bits of his story. He is 31, but feels old, because his story is already too long and too complicated.The hike tired him, but this was only because life tired him first: he knows firsthand about being scattered because of others who try to make a name for themselves.

He escaped Syria about two years ago, and couldn't tell his family or friends which day he was leaving. He miraculously made it through an extraordinary number of checkpoints, and has been bouncing around Europe for 18 months now, trying to learn a new language, and starting a new Master's degree. I say a new Master's degree because he already had one such degree and his own business in Damascus. He had no desire to start over in Europe. But neither did he wish to live in a city where death descended too often, where daily goodbyes had to be said like final farewells, because they might be. So he lives somewhat unwillingly here, with a dream of returning to a peaceful Syria.

My companion told me that he is wearied of moving, tired of changing places and stories and languages. He blamed the ongoing war in Syria on bad politics. I told him that deeper than the politics, the problem is the corrupt heart of every man, wanting to build his own tower or kingdom at the expense of others, to make a name for himself, to seek his own glory. I wish I had told him, too, how I abuse my power and dominion in smaller ways, how the sinners are not just the ones killing 130,000+ Syrians, but the two of us, too, wandering on that path under a peaceful canopy of trees.

Until we recognize our personal part in the problem that afflicts all mankind, we will find no solution.

In Europe it's not hard to travel, and while my sister-in-law was here, other than visiting Paris and going hiking, we also visited Strasbourg, France. We took in the gently-flowing canals, bridges with flower boxes, traditional houses and stone streets. I thought: for most of the world, to live in a place like this would be a dream. It is quiet, clean, organized, and gorgeous. It is probably almost as safe as you can get on earth.

But I was not satisfied, even with this city. I wondered to myself, "Why do I stand in the kingdoms  that man has built, unsatisfied? Why, the more sights I see and the more places I visit, do I long more for the strong tower of God? Why am I not satisfied with the hustle, history and heights of Paris, the organized feel of our home city, or the quiet rest of Strasbourg, as so many appear to be?"

Perhaps because in Paris, in a metro station with state-of-the-art scheduling and a brand new train, there is a woman who is wearing a shirt but no pants, spreading a bag of garbage open on the ledge, as a dog would do. On the river promenade in our city, there's a man yelling at his girlfriend, waving his arms violently. In the homes with the lovely flower boxes and traditional wooden trim in Strasbourg, I'm sure there are still divorces, rebellious children, and broken hearts. Indeed, what spoils the beautiful kingdoms of men is the very men who build them, the very men who seek to enjoy them for their own glory. I stand where many come to make a name for themselves, unsatisfied, because I long for these crowds to enter the city with His name, forever.

On a personal note, what can spoil the fineries of Europe for me is that my heart is still plagued with sin. The biggest threat to these beautiful places is in me, I cannot fully enjoy them because I am still in this self-glorifying body of deathI stand under the tower I have built for myself, unsatisfied, because I long to be brought into His strong tower, forever.

As C.S. Lewis so aptly put it, "...we were made for another world." Maranathaour Lord, come!

The name of the Lord is a strong tower; 
the righteous man runs into it and is safe.

To Calvary, Lord, in spirit now,
Our weary souls repair,
To dwell upon Thy dying love,
And taste its sweetness there.

Sweet resting place of every heart,
That feels the plague of sin,
Yet knows that deep mysterious joy,
The peace with God, within.

There, through Thine hour of deepest woe,
Thy suffering spirit passed;
Grace there its wondrous victory gained,
And love endured its last.

Dear suffering Lamb! Thy bleeding wounds,
With cords of love divine,
Have drawn our willing hearts to Thee,
And linked our life with Thine.

Thy sympathies and hopes are ours:
Dear Lord! we wait to see
Creation, all below, above,
Redeemed and blest by Thee.

Our longing eyes would fain behold
That bright and bless├Ęd brow,
Once wrung with bitterest anguish, wear
Its crown of glory now.

Why linger then? Come, Savior, come,
Responsive to our call;
Come, claim Thine ancient power, and reign 
The Heir and Lord of all.

May 19, 2015

six months

Nine years ago my still-teenage self was bumping down a country road in a friend's Jeep. She was telling me about a good friend's failing marriage. As we bounced along, she explained how it was difficult for her to fathom the devastation of divorce, because in her marriage, "every year gets better." I knew she had a joyful marriage, one that set a bar for me, reminding me that it was possible to be truly be best friends with the one you married. I knew her marriage was, as she always says, "rooted and built up in Him". But that "every year gets better" phrase never left me, because I did not understand. Every year, better? How so? 

I heard the same thing from a wise woman in more recent years, who told me of early conjugal struggles, and her mother's advice to wait it out because "it only gets better". She told me how it proved true in her marriage, that indeed, it was better now than before. I heard, but I still did not understand.

I have often seen how when my friends are dating, engaged or newly married, their lives receive a lot of attention, on social media or otherwise. But around the time of the birth of the second baby, the fanfare dies down and life settles into more ordinary things. Marriage days are punctuated by less-than-romantic trips to the laundromat because there is no clean underwear, or another late night cleaning up and taking out a stinky bag of garbage after guests leave. Then maybe babies, with their strict schedules, spit up and strong lungs. The glamorous Photoshopped wedding and honeymoon photos in exotic destinations eventually are replaced by grainy camera phone photos that show gained weight and receding hairlines. I wanted to believe my friends, but I still wondered, how does it get better as time goes by? The beginning is what looks so fun.

A picture from the day before our wedding.

Six months into my own marriage, I am starting to understand. Our wedding was memorable, and our honeymoon was fun, but can I admit something really boring? As far as our marriage goes, I like this week or last week better than I liked my honeymoon in the mountains. That's because, as I was told, each month, our marriage truly gets richer, deeper and better.

Marriage keeps getting better, because the longer we live this covenant, the more...

...days I've seen my husband's faithfulness in going to work, fighting the thorns and thistles of his particular job, providing for us. 
...times he has patiently wiped up my splashes around our small European kitchen sink and put on his rubber clogs to walk through the kitchen, rather than padding around in wet socks. 
...he has quietly brought a cup of water to my bedside, jumped out of bed to shut the window at night, or sorted (step one) and washed (step two) a pile of sticky supper dishes. 
...meals he's accepted with thanksgiving, not complaining about the meals he doesn't like (pasta with blue cheese sauce and toasted walnuts will never again be on our menu) and the more he's praised the meals he did like (thank God we both like Asian and TexMex).  
...he has graciously listened to my rambling thoughts, and contributed his insight (which is why he doesn't need to read this blog post, because he's heard the rough audio version!) 
...comfortable and safe we feel together, and the more good memories we've made together.
...prayers we've prayed together, the more Scripture we've read together, the more people we've served together. 

Marriage keeps getting better, because the longer we live together, the longer we've loved one another, the more we've forgiven one another, and the better we know and understand each other. Knowing that my husband has promised to live with me in this way until death do us part, gives me the security and serenity that allows our relationship to build on this history together, and grow better. We are learning better how to please each other, and how to build each other up.

But most importantly, the fact that our lives are not centred around devotion to "us", but around devotion to the One who made with us a better covenant, better promises...this allows us to always move toward better, the longer we are married. When we are concentrated on bettering our relationship with God, our marriage is automatically bettered as well.

My husband works in a profession that is technical and mostly male-dominated. When he announced his upcoming wedding at work, there was little conversation about it. If anything, he was told that marriage was not necessary in order to live with a woman. But in contrast, the few women in his office took up the typical feminine role of gushing about our snowy wedding photos and organizing a wedding gift when he returned to work after our honeymoon. One of the ladies asks him occasionally how I'm doing, if I'm settling in well to European life and learning the language, or if married life is OK. Recently she asked my husband if marriage is what he expected it to be.

He smiled when he told me how he responded.
"No, it's not," he told her. "It's better."

And that's why we didn't just count down to our wedding, now we now count up. This week we've been married for 181 days, or six months. I was correctly informed, and now I'm beginning to comprehend, how a God-centered marriage only gets better. 

This same principle applies to any godly, committed relationships in which we find ourselves. Have you noticed that the people who are commonly found criticizing their family, friends or local fellowships are generally the ones who are investing the least in those relationships? The ones who constantly complain about the church leadership or their mother's attitude are not usually the ones scrubbing toilets, forgiving offences, offering others the more prominent positions, quietly slipping off to start on the dishes, sacrificing their Saturday morning sleep-ins for another's good, lingering after the service to encourage a hurting person, or praying together.... They can't experience the joys of a covenant life that keeps getting better, building on shared history, growth and goals, because they aren't living the covenant. The wonder is this, that the God of the better covenant enables us to live our earthly covenants in a way that gets better the longer we live them.

But now Je'sus, our High Priest, has been given a ministry that is far superior to the old priesthood, for he is the one who mediates for us a far better covenant with God, based on better promises.
—the writer to the Hebrews 

Two are better than one, 
because they have a good reward for their labor.